How Should Catholics Think About Sports?

(photo: Photo credit: “Tysto”, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many Americans love sports. That goes without saying, right? We’re not just known for our athletic prowess; we’re known worldwide as mass consumers of athletic competition. To make a comparison, in the U.S. there were an estimated 111,000,000 people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl this year, making it the third most watched television program of all time. Number two on that list is the previous Super Bowl, and the first on that list is the game before that! One third of Americans watched the Seahawks made a terrible decision, and a well-deserved veteran fulfil a dream finish to his career! I had to include that. The fact is: America consumes a lot of sports!

Now, I’m a lover of sports. Pretty much all of them. So I got into a conversation one time with my friends, who said that sports where an evil. These people are no longer my friends. Just kidding. Naturally, I responded with curiosity. They claimed that some of the Church Fathers spoke ill of the viewing of sports. More specifically, they relayed that sports have been discussed as a struggle, much like a passion, or enduring a persecution, and when we view and cheer on sports as spectators, we are – for lack of better words – mocking the passion of Christ. They concluded that today we see much division, violence, and mean spirits in athletes and rival fans. And therefore, sports are an evil.

Now, my impression was one of caution. Certainly, if a Christian of ancient world is referring to “sports”, they’re likely not referring to football players, the World Series, or curling, or badminton. Instead, they’re likely talking referring to the “sport” and spectatorship of those “games” occurring in the stadiums where men and minorities were forced to defend their lives in armed or unarmed combat: the gladiator games. In many cases, without a doubt, they are referring to the persecution of Christians in these centers of athletic competition. Last, any ancient writer could refer to sports in the traditional sense, of individual and team-based competition in which skill, strategy, speed, and dexterity give players and advantage.

Nobody can read Paul’s discourse to the Corinthians and come away with the thought that he is referring to barbaric murder-for-entertainment; he’s referring to a foot race.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Paul certainly thought this analogy through, not wanting to convince his audience there is virtue in an event/act that actually contains an illusory evil. At the same time, to be fair, Paul is not telling his audience to go subscribe to satellite TV. To read more on the use of sports imagery in the Bible, I highly advise you check out this 2009 article at OSV from Carl Olson.

So what can we make of sports in the ancient world? Can sports be evil today? Are all sports and competition evil? I want to make sure I didn’t just dismiss my well-meaning friends, and so I investigated all the references to sports, athletes, and games that I could find in order to create a more informed take on the matter. To steal a quote (in context) from Tertullian, “Various authors are extant who have published work on the subject.” Here’s some great quotes I found:

But that we may cease from the ancient examples, let us come to those who became athletes near to our own time;  let us take the noble examples from our generation. Because of jealousy and envy, the greatest and most righteous pillars of the church were persecuted and they competed until death. Let us set before our eyes the good apostles. —Clement

Be diligent with unceasing prayer. Ask for greater understanding than you have. Be on the alert, possessing an always active spirit. Speak to each individually with agreement in God’s convictions. Bear the sicknesses of all like the perfect athlete. Where the trouble is greater, the gain is great. —Polycarp

The time seeks for you, like shipmasters  seek for wind and like storm-tossed sailors seek for harbor, to reach to God. Be self-controlled, like God’s athlete. The prize  is immortality and eternal life, about which you also have been persuaded. I am your ransom in every respect and also my chains, which you loved. —Polycarp

Those who appear to be trustworthy yet teach strange doctrines,  do not let them amaze you. Stand firm,  like an anvil being struck with a hammer.  It is the mark of  a great athlete to endure punishment  and to achieve victory. But especially for God’s sake we must endure all things, so that he may also endure us. —Polycarp

There are those calling themselves Gnostics who are envious of those in their own house more than strangers. And, as the sea is open to all, but one swims, another sails, and a third catches fish; and as the land is common, but one walks, another ploughs, another hunts, somebody else searches the mines, and another builds a house: so also, when the Scripture is read, one is helped to faith, another to morality, and a third is freed from superstition by the knowledge of things. The athlete, who knows the Olympic stadium, strips for training, contends, and becomes victor, tripping up his antagonists who contend against his scientific method, and fighting out the contest. —Theodotus

The man of God had passed the whole night as a vigil, without sleep, in prayer and watchfulness. But when he heard their approach, whilst all who were with him were rapt in slumber, with a slow and gentle step he descended to the interior part of the prison, and according to the agreement made, made a sound on the wall; and those outside hearing this, forcing an aperture, received this athlete of Christ armed on all sides with no brazen breastplate, but with the virtue of the cross of the Lord, and fully prepared to carry out the Lord’s words who said, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” —Dionysius

But that God sent virtue into matter is asserted without any proof, and it altogether wants probability. Yet it is right that this should have its own explanation. The reason of this they assert, indeed, to be that there might be no more evil, but that all things should become good. It was necessary for virtue to be intermingled with evil, after the manner of the athletes, who, clasped in a firm embrace, overcome their adversaries, in order that, by conquering evil, it might make it to cease to exist. —Alexander of Lycopolis

These are each pretty positive, but opposed to “athletics”, Tertullian was certainly vocal on the matter:

Therefore the believer, too, “perishes,” by lapsing out of (the right path) into a public exhibition of charioteering frenzy, or gladiatorial gore, or scenic foulness, or athletic vanity; or else if he has lent the aid of any special “arts of curiosity” to sports, to the convivialities of heathen solemnity, to official exigence, to the ministry of another’s idolatry; if he has impaled himself upon some word of ambiguous denial, or else of blasphemy. —Tertullian, On Modesty

But if you argue that the racecourse is mentioned in Scripture, I grant it at once. But you will not refuse to admit that the things which are done there are not for you to look upon: the blows, and kicks, and cuffs, and all the recklessness of hand, and everything like that disfiguration of the human countenance, which is nothing less than the disfiguration of God’s own image. You will never give your approval to those foolish racing and throwing feats, and yet more foolish leapings; you will never find pleasure in injurious or useless exhibitions of strength; certainly you will not regard with approval those efforts after an artificial body which aim at surpassing the Creator’s work; and you will have the very opposite of complacency in the athletes Greece, in the inactivity of peace, feeds up. And the wrestler’s art is a devil’s thing. —Tertullian, The Shows

When a tragic actor is declaiming, will one be giving thought to prophetic appeals? Amid the measures of the effeminate player, will he call up to himself a psalm? And when the athletes are hard at struggle, will he be ready to proclaim that there must be no striking again? And with his eye fixed on the bites of bears, and the sponge-nets of the net-fighters, can he be moved by compassion? May God avert from His people any such passionate eagerness after a cruel enjoyment! —Tertullian, The Shows

But at the same time Tertullian was not opposed to the potential virtue that maybe gained through sports:

Therefore your Master, Jesus Christ, who has anointed you with His Spirit, and led you forth to the arena, has seen it good, before the day of conflict, to take you from a condition more pleasant in itself, and has imposed on you a harder treatment, that your strength might be the greater. For the athletes, too, are set apart to a more stringent discipline, that they may have their physical powers built up. They are kept from luxury, from daintier meats, from more pleasant drinks; they are pressed, racked, worn out; the harder their labours in the preparatory training, the stronger is the hope of victory. “And they,” says the apostle, “that they may obtain a corruptible crown.” —Tertullian, Ad Martyras

And more from this ancient saint:

And now, if you turn your eyes and your regards to the cities themselves, you will behold a concourse more fraught with sadness than any solitude. The gladiatorial games are prepared, that blood may gladden the lust of cruel eyes. The body is fed up with stronger food, and the vigorous mass of limbs is enriched with brawn and muscle, that the wretch fattened for punishment may die a harder death. Man is slaughtered that man may be gratified, and the skill that is best able to kill is an exercise and an art. Crime is not only committed, but it is taught. What can be said more inhuman,—what more repulsive? —Cyprian

Though it is not a quote from antiquity, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has two important references, too.

If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships. (2289)

Sanctifying Sundays and holy days requires a common effort. Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day. Traditional activities (sport, restaurants, etc.), and social necessities (public services, etc.), require some people to work on Sundays, but everyone should still take care to set aside sufficient time for leisure. (2187)

This is by no mean exhaustive, so feel free to add your own to the discussion in the comments. What I found is that there is a difference in the evolution of the meaning of “sports” to ancient writers. Common words are “games”, “shows”, “athlete”, and “player”. The divide is usually when a writer is referring to “spectacles” which were the vehement exhibitions of combat and entertainment, and the common “games”, which were the natural competitions of human abilities. Some of these did in fact emanate from pagan celebrations, to which the early Christians were opposed to encouraging.

Today, though, sports generally involve friendly, cooperative, rules-bases exhibitions that put competitors to tests of great physical ability and great character. All parents can and should encourage their children to learn the many virtues that can come through sports. All children can admire an athlete who is arguably one of the best in the world at his sport, and is also one of the most genuinely charitable figures, too.

At the same time, there must be balance. Parents and children can slip dangerously into a life of egotism and obsession when they take sports too seriously. I am drawn to recall the meme that has circulated on the internet of a massive and rowdy college football crowd. The crowd is in a ruckus cheering on their team and the caption reads something to the effect of, “If we took God as seriously as we do sports.” It made a pretty good point: sports are great, but we have something that’s greater, a victory that is more powerful, and a title that we don’t have to defend a year later. We have God, the Sacraments, His holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We have the beatific vision!

Paul, a Roman citizen who clearly has an appreciation for athletics reminds us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

That is by no means a warrant to do anything with the intent of pleasing God. As Paul says seven verses prior to this, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.

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